If there was a key moment in Tuesday morning's opening press conference for the Tribeca Film Festival, it did not emerge as a handful of celebrities and festival sponsors blandly read prepared statements and stiffly gathered onstage like wooden robots of the publicity machine. Instead, an irresistible image appeared when two prominent members of the lineup suddenly broke this iron facade.
Festival co-founder Robert De Niro briefly took the microphone after Spike Lee finished discussing his two Tribeca entries, "Passing Strange" and "Kobe Doin' Work." De Niro, characteristically uncomfortable with the formalities of the spotlight, recited two words from a sheet of paper and barely shielded his disinterest.
"Thanks, Spike," he dryly said. Lee grinned and broke down laughing: De Niro didn't even pretend to care. Soon, the entire room was chuckling in agreement, and even De Niro decided not to hold himself back. He smiled, turned to Lee, and the two men embraced. The cameras flashed. Two legendary New York film personalities comfortably embedded in each others' arms — it was a true Tribeca moment.
At least, the label would seem appropriate if Lee wasn't actually a Tribeca newbie. The filmmaker said he hasn't shown any movies at the festival since its inception in 2002 because the timing never worked out. He generally finishes his movies for Cannes, Venice or Toronto.
This year, "the timing didn't work out," Lee said, then corrected himself. "Or, it did work out." Either way, Lee's making up for his absence over the last several years with his two Tribeca features, both of which have strong buzz behind them.
"Passing Strange," a filmed version of the Tony-winning play by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, fits nicely alongside "Kobe Doin' Work," a detailed portrait of basketball star Kobe Bryant over the course of a single game. Lee expressed satisfaction with the upcoming screening plans. "It took several years," he said, "but everything is time, my mother told me."
The rest of the press conference proceeded in accordance with routine, as journalists unloaded a series of questions and dealt with the predictably restrained answers. A reporter from The Globe and Mail asked festival co-founder Jane Rosenthal if she could "categorically state" that rumors about the festival moving to the fall to accommodate the awards season were untrue.
"I can't categorically state what I'm having for lunch today," Rosenthal quipped.
Meanwhile, De Niro refused to offer insight when prodded to share the direction he would like the festival to take. "I'm happy with the way it's been going," he said. "Sometimes you can't predict where it goes ... only that it's positive and great."
Craig Hatkoff, Rosenthal's husband and business partner, offered a little more perspective. Asked to comment on the impact of the economy on the festival's turnout, he said that fewer tickets had sold, but at a higher percentage than ever before.
Rosenthal added that a number of free community events taking place in New York will help expand the crowd beyond those willing to drop $15 for a movie. Once again, however, the choice quote went to Lee, when asked about the economy's role in the state of the film industry. "They're one of the few people making it these days," he said, "along with McDonald's."
Meanwhile, actress Uma Thurman showed up at the press conference to announce a group of star-studded juries for the festival's competition sections. Thurman will serve on the narrative world competition jury -- she awkwardly described viewing foreign films as "another culture just shooting right inside of you" -- alongside Meg Ryan, Bradley Cooper, director Todd Haynes and Richard Fischof.
Members of the documentary and New York competition juries include Whoopi Goldberg, Parker Posey and documentarian Morgan Spurlock. Judges for the short film competitions include James Franco and Mary-Kate Olsen.
All in all, an eclectic bunch, much like Tribeca itself. The festival operates with a unique, if somewhat puzzling, equation of variables -- but plenty of people plan to figure it out. After leaving his longtime post as director of the Sundance Film Festival, recently anointed chief creative officer of Tribeca Enterprises Geoff Gilmore quietly sat near the front row of the room, listening attentively to his new world.